Jon Stewart of The Daily Show is the best known public figure to make a major point of encouraging civility, reason and respect, and of discouraging exaggeration and demonization, in political discourse.Those of you who have read much of my Blog might guess that I am a big fan of Mr. Stewart. Indeed, I went to Washington to attend his Rally with Stephen Colbert - with my children - a few weeks ago.
Nevertheless, I am starting to suspect that he - and I - may be basically wrong. Not about the abstract desirability of such conduct, but because we are way too optimistic about what will work, politically. We are simply overly idealistic about what people pay attention to.
Some "hard" facts (in no particular order):
1. When bad things happen, most people want some person or people to blame - it has to be someone's fault, be it the politicians, the bankers or the Chinese, rather than just the ebbs and flows of capitalism or the fickle finger of fate or an accident.
2. People have a shorter attention span than they used to - the 10 second sound bite is more powerful than the 10 minute speech. It is also more likely to be shown on TV.
3. People like to be entertained - they would rather see and hear blood, sex, nastiness [how else would you explain Jersey Shore?] even when watching politics, than learn something new or think
4. Many people associate "reasoned debate" with liberal elite intellectuals, whom they despise.
5. People would really rather hear someone say something that they already agree with.
6. People assume that if a figure they like on TV says something, it must automatically be true
7. People will believe almost anything "bad" about someone they don't like, whether anyone identifiable actually makes the claim or not [Fox News has never claimed that Obama is a Muslim]
8. People want easy answers and solutions - that's what they like to be told about
9. People "buy into" slogans or statements without really examining them. "Means" somehow become "ends" in themselves. For example, take "big government is bad." Maybe; maybe not; maybe sometimes. But I would suggest that something like "smaller government", while it may be desirable, is a means, not an end. [to me, an "end" would be more freedom and liberty, both to act (individually) and to prosper economically (both individually and as a group) - but that "smaller government" is not always necessarily the way to reach that end]
10. People would rather hear and believe something bad about someone than something good. Think about which kind of gossip spreads faster.
11. Many people are easily manipulated
12. People hate being "talked down to" or not treated with respect maybe more than they hate anything else
13. People tend to trust those they can identify with, be it a matter of race, age, religion, politics or whatever, and to distrust those who are different.
14. People like conflict rather than reasonable discussion (it is more entertaining)
15. People love pep rallies
16. People will tend to self justify - that is, they will find a reason for their own interests or beliefs to dovetail with some "common" or "moral" good.
17. A fair number of adult American citizens actually are pretty stupid [please note that I did not say which ones]. There are always going to be a fair proportion of people on all ends (trust me, there are more than just two) of the political spectrum who will believe all sorts of strange stuff.
18. A big point - perhaps the biggest - just because you want to play "fair" does not mean that the other side has any interest in doing so. Here, I am going to use some examples.
a. My Dad used to express a concern about whether it was a "good idea to raise sheep in a wolves' world"
b. The Israelis have long complained (with reason) that it was very difficult to make peace with the Palestinians because the Palestinians (or many of them) had no interest whatsoever in actually making peace
c. John Boehner's proclaimed main goal for the next two years is to see that Barack Obama does not get re-elected. If you were Obama, would you trust this guy as a negotiating partner? Would you try to reason with him?
d. Politicians and the media frequently make claims that are demonstrably false. When this is pointed out, they either waffle ("we just repeated what someone else said") or they repeat the lie or even make up new ones. They don't get called on it often enough; and their supporters do not seem to care.
e. Some people have their own agendas that have nothing to do with the truth or common good
f. Some people are openly working on the basis of different "evidence" systems. A powerful Republican Congressman (Rep. Shimkus of Illinois) said last year that he absolutely did not believe in Global Warming because God had promised Noah that there would be no more worldwide floods. [I am not making this up! A United States Congressman! ]. Whether he's right or wrong, there is no reason for he and I to attempt to discuss Global Warming. It does not matter to him what kind of scientific evidence I may have; he's not operating on the basis of science as being authoritative. That's an extreme example of different "evidence" systems, but there are many.
19. A lie, repeated over and over, tends to get believed.
20. People tend to both believe and respect anger and righteous indignation.
21. Many of us want our leaders to be strong and powerful. "Reasonable" comes in way behind "tough", and may be perceived as weakness, either in principle or in power.
22. We want certainty, not shades of grey.
23. We want to be told that "if we only do x, things will be ok."
Would Jon Stewart disagree with my so-called "facts"? I think not. But if I am right about those "facts", is it helpful/useful/productive for those of us who believe we are reasonable liberals to try to engage the other side in discussion, while they tell lies and call us names? Is our good example likely to change their behavior? Or get us closer to our political goals (one of which is to have more reasoned debate)? Not unless large segments of the American people catch on and start demanding more reason and less Jersey Shore. I'd like to believe that that will happen, and I suspect that that is what Jon Stewart is trying to do by focusing public attention in a humorous manner on the more outlandish stuff said by the attack media on both sides. A couple of months ago, I would've agreed strongly that it was certainly worth a shot. Now, I kind of doubt it. It's not because of any election results; I just do not see enough people paying attention.
I am not suggesting that Jon Stewart do anything differently. He fulfills a critical function by puncturing pretentious idiots, and he does it extraordinarily well (as does Stephen Colbert). Moreover, I may be too pessimistic; their observations may have a significant effect, particularly in the long term consciousness of the American people. Rather, I am suggesting that Barack Obama may be trying much too hard to be reasonable and civil.
Now, make no mistake, I am not advocating that any politician lie, particularly about the "enemy" (although one can make a "Sauce for the Goose; sauce for the Gander" argument). But I think that there is certainly more than enough truth out there for us liberals (particularly President Obama) to be really nasty and impolite about. I may eventually write a Post with specific suggestions, but I have some general ones for him (yes I know this is presumptuous; he and his advisers are all much smarter than I am).
1. Be your own spokesman. We are used to Presidents staying "Presidential", and letting others speak for the administration. Start doing it yourself. You are the one with the "Bully Pulpit"; use it.
2. Keep your points short and direct. Avoid sounding like a policy wonk or even overly reasonable.
3. Draw lines in the sand. (ie., say you will Veto any bill extending the tax cuts for the higher income brackets. Period. End of discussion)
4. Be prepared to throw your own party under the bus. The public perceives Reid and Pelosi as running the show. Stop this. Call for the Democrats (as well as the Republicans) to ban earmarks, and agree on some deficit cutting plan which relies in part on entitlement cuts. Adopt the "deficit" issue - expose the difference between "anti-deficit" and "anti-tax".
5. Personally call out Republican leaders and wall street banking types (and maybe even certain media) as "liars" or "greedy pigs" (or slightly less inflammatory things). A lot of these people either voted for TARP or took TARP money, and are now publically attacking governmental bailouts or regulations. Don't be afraid to burn your bridges with these guys; they are the enemy (you can still negotiate with the enemy, but you will never make at least some of these people into anything else)
6. Do something that will be seen as "strong" (besides Afghanistan) against Moslem extremists. Killer drones are a good start - don't be apologetic - say something like "call for attacks on American citizens and be prepared to die"
6. Don't be afraid to lose votes in Congress. Demand that proposals be put to a vote, even if you think you will lose. (this will make you no friends in Congress in either party). If they are not put to a vote, ask why.
7. Don't be afraid of being accused of "class warfare". Just tell people that if that's what you are doing, the Republicans have already fired the first shot.
8. Attack the procedural prerequisites of senators; set a date in the future (so no one knows who will benefit) to limit or even end filibusters and holds. (Yes I know these are Senate Rules governed by the Senate, but publically suggest it change those Rules)
Please note I do not suggest you either move towards or away from the "middle" of American politics. (although I suspect you should do some of both.) My main point is that you need to start appearing (not just being) "Presidential". You are not the head legislator; you are the President. Enough.